During his life, Joseph Jacobs was considered one of the leading English folk authorities and one of the leading authors in fairy tales and fables. He has achieved many things in his life, and people remember him as one of the best English folklorists and one of the important figures in Judaism of that time. As for his literary style, he wrote with ease and grace and could have achieved a high place on the great list of British literary dignitaries if he had continued his career in literature.
Early Life and Education
Joseph Jacobs was born in Sydney, Australia on August 29, 1854. He was the sixth son of John Jacobs, a customs officer who emigrated from London around 1837, and his wife Sarah Myers. Jacobs was educated at Sydney Gymnasium and at the University of Sydney, where he received a scholarship to Classics, Mathematics and Chemistry. He did not complete his studies in Sydney but went to England at the age of 18.
He moved to England to study at St. John's College at the University of Cambridge, where he graduated in 1876. At the university, he showed a special interest in mathematics, philosophy, literature, history and anthropology. While in Britain, Jacobs became aware of widespread anti-Semitism; to counteract this, he wrote an essay Mordecai which was published in the June 1877 issue of Macmillan's magazine.
In 1877 he moved to Berlin to study Jewish literature and bibliography under Moritz Steinschneider and Jewish philosophy and ethnology under Moritz Lazarus. After that, Jacobs returned to England, where he studied anthropology under Francis Galton.
At this point, he began to further develop his interest in folklore. From 1878 to 1884 he served as secretary. He was concerned about anti-Semitic pogroms in the Russian Empire and in January 1882 he wrote letters on the subject to the London Times. This helped draw public attention to the issue, resulting in the formation, of which he was secretary from 1882 to 1900. He was honorary secretary of the Committee on Literature and the Arts - held at London's Royal Albert Hall in 1887 - and compiled an exhibition catalog with Lucien Wolf.
In 1888 Jacobs visited Spain to review old Jewish manuscripts there. While in the country, he was elected a corresponding member of the Royal Academy of History in Madrid. In 1891 he returned to the subject of Russian anti-Semitism for his short book The Persecution of the Jews in Russia, first published in London and then republished in the United States by the Jewish Society for the Publication of the Americas. In 1896, Jacobs began publishing the annual Jewish Yearbook, continuing the series until 1899, after which it was continued by others.
In Britain, he was also president of the Jewish Historical Society.
In 1896, Jacobs visited the United States to give his lectures on "Philosophy of Jewish History" at Gratz College in Philadelphia. In 1900 he was invited to be the revised editor of the Jewish Encyclopedia, which contained articles by 600 contributors. He moved to the United States to take on the task. He became a working member of the publication committee of the Jewish Public Society.
In the United States, Jacobs also taught at the American Jewish Theological Seminary.
Jacobs married Georgina Horne and was the father of two sons and a daughter. In 1900, when he became the revised editor of the New York-based Jewish Encyclopedia, he settled permanently in the United States.
As mentioned, he was a student of anthropology in the Statistical Laboratory at University College London in the 1880s under Francis Galton. His studies on Jewish statistics: social, vital, and anthropometric (1891) made him a prominent first advocate of Jewish race science.
In 1908 he was appointed a member of a board of seven members, who made a new English translation of the Bible for the Jewish Society for Publication from America.
In 1913 he resigned from his seminary to become editor of American Hebrew.
In 1920, Book I of his Jewish contributions to civilization, which was practically completed at the time of his death, was published in Philadelphia.
In addition to the books already mentioned, Jacobs edited Aesop's fables as first published by Caxton (1889), Gracian's The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1892), Howell's Letters (1892), Barlaam and Josaphat (1896), One Thousand and One Nights (6 volumes, 1896) and others. Jacobs was also a contributor to the Encyclopedia Britannica and James Hastings' Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics.
Jacobs also edited Folklore magazine from 1899 to 1900, while from 1890 to 1916 he worked on several collections of fairy tales published with illustrations by John Dickson Batten: English fairy tales, Celtic fairy tales, Indian fairy tales, all from 1890 to 1895 and the European Book of Fairy Tales (also published as European Folk and Fairy Tales). He was very much inspired by Charles Perrault and Brothers Grimm and the romantic nationalism common to folklorists of his time. He wanted English children to have access to English fairy tales, while they mostly read French and German fairy tales; in his own words: "What Perrault started, the Grimms completed."
Although he collected many stories under his name and categorized them as fairy tales, many of them were unusual types of stories. Binnorie and Tamlana are prose versions of ballads, The Old Woman and Her Pig is a children's rhyme, Henny-Penny is a fable, and The Buried Moon has a mythical overtone to the point of being unusual in fairy tales. According to his own analysis of English fairy tales: "Of the eighty-seven stories contained in my two volumes, thirty-eight are my own Märchen, ten sagas or legends, nineteen drolls, four cumulative stories, six stories of beasts and ten nonsense."
He died on January 30, 1916, at his home in Yonkers, New York, at the age of 62.
Summaries, Analyses & Books
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- Jack and the Beanstalk
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- The Story of the Three Bears
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